WELCOME TO MY WORLD: Pop the farmer

Carole Christman Koch

First published in local newsletter, Kutztown Historical Society, 2008 and in 2011 locally on Berks County TV website.

Pop, having learned the trade of farming from my mother’s brother, decided to strike out on his own. He wanted to be his own boss.

The first share-cropping (paying in crops) Pop did was on the Maxatawny Farm, located along Route 222, three miles north of Kutztown, on the left as you enter Maxatawny. Pop farmed here from 1922-1925.

It was on this farm three of the children were born: William in 1922 (died in infancy); Lester in 1923; and Anita in 1925. Dr. Smith, from Topton, not only delivered these babies but all of the children. Lester was the last of the deliveries that the doctor made traveling by horse and wagon.

The second share-cropping farm was called the Warmkessel Farm, located on the Farmington Road, towards Mertztown. Pop farmed here from 1925 to 1935.

On this farm Paul was born in 1926, Jannetta in 1927, and Carl in 1929.

Finally, on March 13, 1935, my parents were able to purchase an 89 acre farm, from Celia Grim Butz at a public sale for $5,535. It is located off Route 222, near Monterey.

Anita, my oldest sister, remembers the move to the Monterey Farm, quite vividly, “There was lots of excitement. We were moving what little furniture we had when we heard a band outside. We ran to the window. In front of the house, on the back of a truck, was Ed Marine and his band. It was called a Bull Band.” (In rural America during the 19th century, the custom of celebrating a wedding, or in this case, moving day with noise, revelry, and practical jokes was widespread. It was still common practice in Berks County during the Depression.)

On this farm were born Mary Alice in 1932, Dorothy in 1934, David in 1935, Gladys in 1937, and me, Carole, in 1940.

Anita also recalls, “One of the first chores Pop did was to clean out the apple orchard, to the left of the house. The apple trees no longer produced good apples. Horses had a chain or rope attached to the tree stump, and one by one, they were pulled out.”

At first, the family lived in the back part of the house (the old kitchen), where the bake oven was located. Around 1936, Pop had a kitchen built in front of the house and a bathroom upstairs.

The Christman farm was largely self-sustaining. Pop grew a variety of crops, such as oats, wheat, corn, hay, timothy, clover, and potatoes. We had working horses, cows (20 in the early years), chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, and steer. There was butchering of pigs, chickens, and ducks for the provision of meats. Pop had hired hands early on, until the boys were old enough to help.

Although Pop only had an 8th grade education, he learned the trades of a carpenter, a plumber, shoe repairer (for the first five kids), electrician, and butcher. He taught himself how “to do” the books. Once a month, I’d see him haul his heavy ledger book, from the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard. At the table, he’d copiously write up his debts and credits.

As teens, we considered Pop to be “tight” with money. Today, I understand the challenge he faced, providing for his growing family.

My sister, Gladys, recalls one of his best “tight” days. She and her husband lived in the back part of the house. One day Pop told her, “Your share of the telephone bill is $3.04.” She handed him $3. He asked for the four cents.

Pop was never a drinker. Mom said, on rare occasions, he would stop at Kemp’s Hotel to chat with “Kempy.” He only drank one beer. Another story Mom told us about was when Pop went to an auction with a neighbor. On the way home, the neighbor stopped at a hotel and wouldn’t leave. Pop left, walking the six miles home.

Still another story we heard about when Route 222 was built. Some workmen found Indian graves and threw the bones on a pile in the field. Pop collected the bones and buried them on his property.

On Sunday summer days, Pop could be found sitting on a chair on the front lawn. On his lap sat the big Bible. Mom said he read the Bible six times during his life.

The brothers told me that after the chores were finished on a Saturday, the grounds had to be cleaned up around the barnyard. It had to look decent for Sunday.

Pop was adamant about working on a Sunday. Only necessary work was allowed, like feeding the animals or milking the cows. Gladys recalls sweeping the bedroom one Sunday. When Pop came upstairs, he pulled the plug on her.

Pop served as a deacon and elder at the Maxatawny Church. He made sure that all his children had a Christian upbringing.

Except for church, Pop always wore bib overalls, with a hanky sticking out his back pocket. When he’d come in from the fields for dinner on hot summer days, his hands and arms were blackened with chaff. The spring water from the small sink in the kitchen always ran. There, Pop, rolled up his sleeves, half filled the sink with water, soaped up his arms, and rinsed them by splashing the darkened water over each arm. After all this, it still looked as if his hands hadn’t been washed. Under the sink is where he placed his shoes at bed time.

Pop was a stickler when it came to getting up in the mornings. David recalls never being an early bird in his teen years. If Mom called him to get up, he lingered. But, if he heard Pop’s voice, he was up in no time. Even with the girls, he’d yell if we stayed in bed what he considered late.

David says that Pop taught him things that helped him in his sanitation business. If you’re out in the field, whether plowing, harrowing, or cultivating, you don’t return until you finish the field. If something broke, you fix it to get the job finished.

The best lesson David learned from Pop was to keep his mouth shut. “One time I was helping Pop fix the corn crib. Pop went outside to hammer nails in place. I happened to have my fingers in the way, and a nail cut my finger. I kept my mouth shut even though I was in pain. He would have said, “Why was your finger there in the first place!”

Since Pop was mostly in the fields or in the barn performing chores, Mom was the main disciplinarian. But, if he was nearby, we could get him riled.

Gladys and I, as the younger siblings, on occasion missed the school bus. Once Pop saw us from the barn yard, we’d hear him yell, in Dutch, “Gottverdammt dunnerwetter” (meaning, Gosh-dam thunder weather). This is the wildest swearing that we ever heard from Pop. We kept our mouths shut, on those drives to school---and a few days thereafter.

My older sisters, Anita and Jannetta, said that Pop rarely took them to their one-room school at Siegfriedsdale, either. It had to be really bad snow storm, before they had the privilege of a horse and sleigh ride.

When my sister and I shared a bedroom, we often giggled and talked a length of time when in bed. My father, after yelling at least three times for us to settle down, would come over to our bedroom in the dark. With his belt, he’d smack the covers with us beneath a few times. The sting was enough to make us quiet down. After a few of these stings, Gladys, the smart one, who slept against the wall, learned a neat trick to fool Pop. Once she heard him come into the bedroom, she’d get out from under the covers, plaster herself against the wall, and scream “as if” she was being hit. I never ratted on her.

I have to admit, even as married adults, the sisters still got Pop riled in his 80s. One time we were house-cleaning for Mom. Pop had gone out. Gladys and I ended the house-cleaning by spritzing water through the kitchen window on anyone standing nearby. Mom and the other sister were just as bad, throwing glasses of water outside on us. Pop happened to come home in the midst of this water battle, when the kitchen floor was a big puddle of water. That time, Mom and the sisters all received a tongue lashing, “Grown children, and you too, Mom!”

Aside from being stern and serious, Pop has a fun side. He played Santa Claus for his children. He’d open the kitchen door, throw in nuts, oranges, candy and then quickly disappear.

Some hot summer evenings, the whole family took blankets, pillows, even mattresses, to sleep in the yard. While Mom would try to teach us names of the stars, Pop “goosed” Mom. She’d always scold, “The children will see!”

When a field was plowed and the ground freshly turned over, that was our arrowhead hunting time. Pop always was patient in pointing out what arrowheads “do not” look like, every time we’d pick up a regular stone and ask, “Is this one, Pop?”

In the 60s, Pop retired, sold the farm, and built a ranch home on Walnut Street in Kutztown. The farm in now a Foliage Farm. The barn was destroyed by lightning. The house is privately owned.

Mostly though, I remember, our special times on the front porch, listening to the rain. Pop and I sat side by side on the glider, just watching and listening. This is where I learned to love rain pelting down on the tin roof above us. After a storm, Pop would walk from one end of the porch to the other, and soon he’d call, “Carole, hurry. Come here! The rainbow is over here!” These were the times with Pop that I cherished. I didn’t have to share them with any other siblings. Just me and Pop, the farmer.

Carole Christman Koch, of Macungie, grew up in Kutztown and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to raising children to humorous stories about her and her husband to everyday stories to season storeis and more.